The Great NPR Program You Never Heard

Novelist John Gardner's Radio Ambitions Went Unfulfilled

Author John Gardner at his wooden farmhouse near the Vermont border in 1977. Corbis hide caption

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I never quite figured out why John Gardner liked me. In 1977, he approached NPR with an idea for a new program, and I was the producer assigned to him. We hit it off immediately, even though I had not yet read any of his work. Maybe that was it — that I didn't seem star struck by him. Maybe it was my hair — which was as long as his. Or that I wore jeans to work, as he did. Or that I wasn't an executive, but a working producer. Or maybe it was simply that I was producing an arts magazine that he liked.

The program I was working on with Jay Kernis (now NPR's VP for Programming) was called Voices in the Wind. Its catch phrase was "a report on the creative experience in a contemporary world." Gardner liked that. It's what he also wanted to do, but with a unique point of view. Voices was a thoughtful program, but wasn't designed to challenge art or artists. We put on writers, musicians, actors and directors we thought were good, and often ignored the rest. In late 1977, Gardner sent me an idea for an opening to his show, which he then called Arts Watch. Here's what it looked like:

MUSIC: BABER THEME (composer Joseph Baber collaborated with Gardner on three operas.)

SOUND: JUNGLE SOUNDS, MONKEYS AND TIGERS, TWO PEOPLE WALKING.

HANK: Hey Charley, you scared?

CHARLEY: Nah. Why? Are you?

HANK: I never been out on a Beauty hunt before.

CHARLEY: It's the same as any other kind of hunt, Hank. Pay attention, keep yer eyes open, don't let it sneak up behind you.

HANK: Yeah, I know but...

CHARLEY: Here comes one! Watch out!

MUSIC/SOUND: FIRST PHRASE OF MOZART'S 40TH COMES UP RAPIDLY, FADES OUT; SOUND OF ELEPHANT GUNS.

HANK: Nearly got me! Came too fast to get a shot at.

CHARLEY: Good ducking! Here comes another one!

MUSIC/SOUND: QUICKLY UP AND OUT, SNATCH OF BACH'S MASS IN B MINOR; GUNFIRE AS IT FLIES AWAY.

HANK: This Beauty stuff, Charley. It's very tricky. You didn't tell me.

CHARLEY: Just keep your eyes open, like I said —

MUSIC/SOUND: SNATCH OF SWEET BLUEGRASS, MOVING UP FAST. DEATH-CRY AS HANK IS CAUGHT BY IT (e.g. "Charley! Help!") THEN BOTH MUSIC AND CRY FLY OFF TOGETHER.

CHARLEY (grieved and sickened): Poor devil! He let it sneak up behind him!

MUSIC: BABER THEME (MOVING IN QUICKLY)

CHARLEY: Oh no! Not that!

MUSIC: BABER THEME TRIUMPHANT.

GARDNER: What happens when people get swallowed up by beauty — that is, by good art — is not exactly clear. That's one of the reasons we have the Arts Watch. Welcome! What's Art? You say to me; that's not so clear either. It's another reason we have the Arts Watch.

Beautiful music's all around us in the world — and so is stupid, fake music. We all know that. And it's the same in all the other arts — beautiful novels, stupid novels that make you furious at wasting money; beautiful architecture, stupid architecture; beautiful paintings, stupid paintings. And to make things worse, we know from experience that it's not always easy to tell the difference. How many of us realized right from the beginning that those miserable punks the Beatles were in fact real artists? Or that tortuously self-conscious, sentimental rhetorician William Faulkner? Art breaks all walls down, all categories. Good classical music and first-rate jazz have more in common than good classical music and bad, or good jazz and bad. How do we know the difference?

Enemies out to confuse us are everywhere: dumb teachers, smart businessmen fobbing off trash on the pretense that it's art. What should we look for? How can we be certain that it's not all a con? That's what we watch on the Arts Watch.

How could any arts producer not be enthused after reading that? Here was a chance to tackle some weighty issues in contemporary culture with someone who had no doubt he was right and knew the answers. I learned a lot about Gardner from those few paragraphs.

I learned more during Gardner's regular trips to Washington to work for a few days at a time. He often stayed with my wife and me, camped out on our couch, drinking, smoking and talking art and philosophy into the wee hours. One day he needed to buy some pipe tobacco, and I drove him downtown. In the course of that four-mile trip, Gardner revealed a few different sides of his nature. I told him I had just finished reading The Sunlight Dialogues. Before I even got the chance to say that I thought it was magnificent, he said, "It's too long, isn't it? It's too long. I should've been able to say the same thing in half the length." With some people, you might think they were just fishing for a compliment, but I didn't get that sense with Gardner. It felt like legitimate self-doubt to me. The conversation turned to the actual dialogues in the book, then the concept of writing for the ear, then radio drama. I asked him if he found it difficult to switch gears from novelizing to playwriting. "Nah," he responded. "Writing is writing. I can write anything, anytime, anywhere. Drama, poetry, operas, advertising copy... it's all just writing." Within a half mile he went from doubting author to supremely self-assured artist.

Over the months, the program concept evolved. It was now called Listen, which Gardner said he intended "as a command, not a request." He involved two of his other friends, musician Andre Speyer and cultural maven Ruth Hirschman (now as Ruth Seymour, she is the General Manager/Program Director of NPR member station KCRW in Santa Monica.). Some pilot segments were done, but nothing ever aired. It's hard now, 27 years later, to remember exactly why. It could have been Gardner's bout with colon cancer, or the demands of his many other projects (not to mention his own writing). It might have been backlash from the publication of On Moral Fiction, which got a large segment of the arts community annoyed with him. It could have been money — Gardner's ambitions were large and NPR's coffers were small.

No matter the reason, it was NPR's loss that Listen never went on the air. Still, those months that he spent with us left a lasting mark. He appeared on NPR shows regularly. I interviewed him about myth and monsters for a Halloween segment. Jay Kernis interviewed him for a Voices program about the hands of artists. Those still exist in our archives. In fact, 22 items are there, including three different obituaries. For me, that's really all I have. In all the time I spent with Gardner, I never once asked him to sign one of his books, or take a picture with me. I didn't expect he would disappear from the face of the Earth quite so quickly. So what I am left with is a fairly complete collection of his books, his voice on tape, and my memories. I guess that's really pretty good, isn't it?

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